What's the first accessory I ordered to go with my new 5DIIs? Why, a custom fitted L-bracket from Kirk Enterprises of course! Wondering what the hell I'm going on about? Read on...
What sounds like something from a star trek convention is actually one of the best bits you can buy for your camera. An L-bracket is a quick release plate that allows your camera to be mounted on a tripod ball head in either a horizontal or vertical position. As for why this is such a great thing, let's start from the beginning:
Why a ball head? There are numerous types of tripod head out there and the tend to be suited to different types of photography. Architects tend to use three-way heads as the camera can be adjusted in each plane independently. Videographers use fluid heads to allow them to make smooth panning shots. Most travel photographers prefer to use a ball head, as they are compact and very quick to move the camera from one position to another.
Why a quick release plate? If you've ever used a tripod without a quick release plate then you will realise why you can never be without one. Screwing and un-screwing the camera from the tripod becomes old fast. With a quick release plate, the camera clips on and off the head in a second.
Why an arca-swiss compatible plate? There are lots of different tripod heads available. The big tripod manufacturers such as Manfrotto, Gitzo and Velbon all make their own. And each has their own proprietary quick release systems. The plate from one manufacturer won't fit into the head from another. Additionally, their plates are flat, so when the head is flopped vertically to make a portrait format shot, the camera can rotate on the plate under it's own weight, especially with a heavy lens attached. This can be very irritating when you are trying to create accurate framing for your latest photographic masterpiece.
Some more enlightened head manufacturers, such as Markins, Kirk or Really Right Stuff, specialise in making heads with a common quick release platform based on that made by Arca Swiss. The benefits are that you can swap plates and heads, but also that the plates themselves can be made to fit each camera and so avoid the problem of the camera slipping.
And if you've made it this far, finally:
Why an L-bracket? You can have an Arca Swiss compatible plate, but they still require you to flop your ball head and re-compose the scene when you want to shoot vertical. The L-bracket allows you to leave the head upright, and simply re-attach the camera in the vertical position. This is such a time saver that once you have started using one you will never go back to the 'old' way. The best L-brackets are customised to your particular model of camera so that they fit snugly and still leave access to various ports on the side of the camera body, e.g. for a cable release or a firewire cable.
Overall, the combination of a high-quality ball head and an L-bracket turns using a tripod from a chore into a pleasure. So before you splash out on that new lens, decide whether you might better be served lavishing some attention on the less exciting bits of your kit.
For what it's worth, I use Markins Q3 and M10 heads with L-brackets from Kirk, and am very happy with them.